The FourFourTwo Season Preview 2015/16: Liverpool
Few capable of cognitive reasoning believed Liverpool would emulate 2013/14’s Luis Suarez-inspired title charge, but the way last season tailed off nevertheless represented a huge disappointment. Eight points from the final nine games dumped the Reds from Champions League probables to sixth. The less said about the 6-1 capitulation to Stoke the better.
Brendan Rodgers has spent again. Christian Benteke – despite the Reds' boss not knowing what anyone's talking about – and Roberto Firmino are the club’s second- and third-most expensive players at £29m and £32.5m respectively, with £12.5m parted with to sign Nathaniel Clyne and Danny Ings’ fee decided by tribunal.
Incidentally, that sound you can also hear is phones around the country ringing as the Northern Irishman finds a way to splurge the Raheem Sterling-shaped £49m hole in his pocket. Aston Villa have already felt the full force of Rodgers' spending and, given Liverpool's net spend is only around £20m thus far, you wouldn't bet against more arrivals.
Why they’ll do well
- James Milner (Manchester City)
- Danny Ings (Burnley)
- Adam Bogdan (Bolton Wanderers)
- Joe Gomez (Charlton Athletic)
- Roberto Firmino (Hoffenheim)
- Nathaniel Clyne (Southampton)
- Christian Benteke (Aston Villa)
- Steven Gerrard (LA Galaxy)
- Glen Johnson (Released)
- Brad Jones (Released)
- Sebastian Coates (Sunderland)
- Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)
On their day, Liverpool have an attacking quintet that can trouble any defence, and with Benteke added, in a variety of ways. Firmino has the flexibility to play as a wide forward or as a No.9, while this should be the season that Philippe Coutinho confirms himself as a world-class playmaker. You’d also expect Adam Lallana to improve on a slightly underwhelming first campaign.
Throw in the ready-made Sterling replacement that is Jordon Ibe, plus a solid central midfield of new captain Jordan Henderson, the improving Emre Can and ever-reliable new arrival James Milner and Rodgers has a collective that can shine.
Assuming they can get anything approaching a full season from Daniel Sturridge, you’d expect the team to have a better season in front of goal than the paltry 74 managed from 58 games in 2014/15.
Despite Simon Mignolet’s Christmas-time wobble and the occasional calamity – step forward Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren – the defence kept an impressive 14 clean sheets last term. Maintain that and a better-than-expected season is possible.
Why they’ll do badly
Confidence, or more specifically, a lack therein. When Liverpool lose a game, more defeats follow. Before the Merseysiders lost 2-1 at home to Manchester United in late March, they were 13 unbeaten, winning 10 of those. After that loss, they won two in nine against a shambolic Newcastle and near-relegated QPR.
The problem is the lack of leaders. When Rodgers’ team go a goal down, the diminutive playmakers retreat to their collective shells. Too often the safe option is taken, instead of a greater risk-reward tact.
The problem isn’t the attack’s exclusive preserve, either. At centre-back, Martin Skrtel looks like he’s killed before, yet it’s still difficult to shake the feeling that he is too often bullied by centre-forwards half his size. A further worry is that the Slovakian is the back four leader. Lovren has reverted to his pre-Southampton Lyon form and Sakho does a little dance every time he gets the ball. Alberto Moreno is far better going forward than the other way.
Having Milner, now an elder statesman at 29, should help, but when the going gets tough, Liverpool have to get going out of their mental lethargy.
The big questions...
1) How do they replace Gerrard?
Henderson has undoubtedly blossomed into the midfielder few Liverpool fans thought possible after his June 2011 move from Sunderland – check out the rabona assist against the Thai All Stars, if you don’t believe them – but these are the biggest of boots to fill. It comes back to the leadership issue. It’s Gerrard’s off-the-pitch influence that will be most missed.
2) Will they stick to one formation?
Rodgers’ tactical flexibility is to be applauded, but there are times when his Magic Brendan line-ups cause more harm than good. Reverting to a back three in the FA Cup semi-final against Aston Villa, when opposition teams had worked out how to counter that system three weeks earlier, was a fatal error. He’s got plenty of centre-forwards, it’s about time he used them.
3) Can Rodgers trust in youth?
Rodgers has trusted the Liverpool academy and should continue to do so. Ibe aside, Jordan Rossiter – a lung-bursting midfielder – scored on his first-team debut last season and should feature more prominently, Jerome Sinclair came off the bench against Chelsea, while the gifted playmaker Joao Carlos Teixeira looked promising on loan at Brighton last season and in pre-season, after a quick recovery from a broken leg.
Key player: James Milner
Milner has a big season ahead. Now at his peak, and at a club that will play the England international in the central midfield position he so craved at Manchester City, Milner must step up. Though a new arrival, he joins a squad that will need his experience. Who knows, he could join Henderson at the heart of Roy Hodgson’s first-choice midfield in time for Euro 2016.
What we’ll be saying in May
It’s been another season of transition for Liverpool, but if they can get Sturridge fit in 2016/17, then the league could well be theirs. Again. They still can’t really defend. Again. On the plus side, Rodgers’ teeth have never looked whiter.
To see where FourFourTwo think Liverpool will finish – along with a bespoke two-page preview – get our special new season issue.